The Trip Part V - Iceland

We were planning to head to Europe so when I discovered that the cheapest tickets were being offered by Icelandair, I jumped on it. Why? I have always wanted to visit this mystic land and Icelandair lets you have a free stopover for up to a week. I highly recommend that you do this once - Iceland was far and away the highlight of our European trip.

Day I - We arrived late in Keflavik where the main international airport is located. This is on the southwest corner of the island and lies right on top of the mid Atlantic ridge in an area known as the Reykjanes. Already you can see that Iceland is not your everyday island. The area west and south of the town are essentially lava fields interrupted by bulges in the earth where gas, superheated water or lava periodically seeps out.


i-c18b4d37d40e3ef1d719d297e3e4d972-Slide0a.jpgAlthough Iceland is cold, I would say that the wind is much more impressive. Looking straight up you could clearly see the clouds zip across the sky. One moment it was sunny, the next rainy, the next foggy, and 5 minutes later the sun came out again. Another nice feature of the country is that it is loaded with geothermal energy sources. Ocean water seeps into cracks between the American and Eurasian plates as they move away from eachother. As the water hits the inner depts on the earth it heats up and boils up to the surface. This is very noticeable in the Reykjanes peninsula, which is full of power plants that convert the hot water into electricity. Another nice feature is that the ample amount of geothermal water means that you can find hot water at any location even the lowliest camp site!

We then arrived at our new home, Alex Camping/Hostel/Motel, a small place that is conveniently located 2 minutes away from the airport. After setting up the tent, we head inside to eat dinner and watch the Spaniards beat the Germans to take the Euro '08 final. Needless to say everyone was cheering for Spain. I should add here that we were able to catch quite a few games over the course of our trip. We saw Turkey make an incredible comeback to beat Croatia with two goals in the last few minutes. In Cancale Brittany we watched Italy beat France while surrounded by angry french partisans . We watched Germany beat Portugal with our Portuguese friends. And finally we watched Germany beat Turkey in Munich - now that was quite an experience! OK lets get back to Iceland ...

Our next task was to stock up on supplies. We found out from our fellow campers that the nearby grocery store was closed. It was getting late but since the sky was still blue we decided to head into town to get something for the next day's breakfast. The only establishment still open was Subway (as in the American fast food chain) so we bought a couple of sandwiches (costing about 10$ each) and headed back to camp.

That first night was very bizarre. I slept until 3AM then got up, looked out of the tent and discovered a blue sky. I tried to sleep but could only do so for an hour at a time. My body was clearly out of whack. Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle so by the end of June the sun barely dips under the horizon at around 2AM. You have virtually 24 hours of daylight. During our whole stay in Iceland we never experienced darkness except for our last day when night consisted of an extended sunrise/sunset. My body got so accustomed to the perpetual daylight that when the sun set on our first day back in Boston, darkness felt quite novel and alien.

Day 2 - After scarfing down our Subway sandwiches, we caught the bus and headed towards the famed Blue Lagoon for a day of relaxation. On our way there we passed by spectacular lava fields, resembling something close to the apocalypse.

i-165ea044878fdc331542c07d0b2f15ab-blue.jpgThe Blue Lagoon is a large pool, about the size of half a football field, filled with geothermal water runoff from a nearby energy plant. As ocean water seeps into cracks found deep within the earth's crust, the liquid heats up and dissolves minerals, such as silicon and sulfur. The heated water then gushes to the surface where it can be harvested be energy greedy little humans. After most of the heat is sucked out of the water the salty opaque turquoise runoff is pumped to the spa for our enjoyment.

Besides wading in water, sitting in the sauna, and standing under a waterfall (the water that beats down on your shoulders and back gives quite a good massage), we gave each other facials by smearing some of the silica deposits over our faces. This white sludge collects in large wooden boxes found on the perimeter of the lagoon. As the mud dries it stretches your skin giving a stinging sensation.

After that pleasent stay at the spa, we went out to do our shopping. What is Icelandic food like? The fruits and vegetables were expensive and generally of poor quality. They did have an interesting bread, skonsur, that you could buy hot almost everywhere. Our biggest discovery was skyr, a yogurt like cheese that has been around since the times of the Vikings.

Day 3 - We picked up our rental car at the airport and immediately headed west. Our first stop was Thingvellir, a valley located on the northern edge of Lake Thingvallavatn. Both the valley and the lake are the direct results of continental drift. In the picture below the American "plate" is to the left and the Eurasian counterpart is on the right.


Thingvellir is also the location where all the Viking settlers would congregate from across Iceland to make laws and settle disputes. A holy place both geologically and politically.

After hiking around the northern rim of the lake and visiting a waterfall in the northern part of the rift valley, we turned east. The next stop on our journey was Geyser. (It is from this very water spout that all geysers get their name.) Geyser is huge, its eruptions of boiling water are supposedly the second highest on the planet. The reason why I use the term "supposedly" is that we did not witness any activity - Geyser only erupts after earthquakes. Instead we had to settle for the eruption of its neighbor Strokur, the world's fifth biggest geyser.


Nearby there were about a dozen smaller holes through which geothermal water gurgled and bubbled up to the earth's surface. Having had our fill of hot water spouts we pitched our tent at a nearby campsite located three hundred feet from Geysir. This was quite a achievement as the wind was blowing hard. Over dinner we listened to our Polish neighbors' stories of biking across the country, mostly straight into the Icelandic wind. I was thankful that we were travelling by car. Despite the blustery weather and the slight sulfuric smell, we slept very well that night.

Day 4 - We got up early and travelled north to Gullfoss. This giant waterfall is what you obtain when a large river encounters one of these giant fissures that separate the American and European plates. Gullfoss is incredibly huge.


To give you an idea of the size I've drawn a box around a guy who's standing next to the falls.


We next headed up the road to get a glimpse of Langjokull, the second biggest glacier in Iceland. This is as far north as we traveled for the entire trip.


We then turned southwest across a gravel road to see Hekla, a giant Volcano that erupts every few centuries. The land around this massive mountain looked like the surface of the moon. We even got a glimpse of an archaeological site, Stong, where an old Viking habitation was partially excavated. Apparently the settlement was buried by ash that spewed out of Hekla nearly a thousand years ago.

Finally we turned south and crossed a giant valley full of fenced in fields. As far as we could tell, most farms seemed to be raising sheep, Icelandic horses or hay to feed the two types of animal.


Eventually we hit the southern coast and encountered a huge plateau to the east. Here's a picture of it taken from several miles away. You'll notice a small white waterfall in the center of the photo.


As we came closer to the elevated landmass, the enormous size of the geological formations became apparent. Here another photo of that same waterfall, Seljalandfoss.


We then parked the car to see the waterfall up close.



You could easily walk around Seljalandfoss and view the lush green vegetation generated from the water spray.


We then continued east along the southern edge of the plateau. It turns out that this uplifted landmass consists of two volcanic mountains. The eastern one was covered by a glacier named Eyjafjallajokull, the western one was covered by Myrdalsjokull. In the not so distant past, eruptions of either mountain caused horrendous floods in the surrounding lowlands.

We finally decided to settle for the night at the foot of Skogafoss, the largest waterfall fed by these two glaciers.


We pitched our tent (the yellow one in the photo above), ate our dinner, and then decided to hike up the side of the waterfall to investigate the plateau. It was 9PM and there was plenty of daylight - so why not?.


This was by far the highlight of the entire trip. The plateau was indescribably beautiful. A vast green carpet with a couple of sheep scattered about every few miles. A couple of times we crossed paths with hikers who were headed towards the southern coast. Evidently we stumbled onto a path that leads to Thorsmork, an inaccessible town that lies in an isolated valley sandwiched between a hand full of glaciers. (Here's a picture of two hikers who were following a path that was on the other side of the river).


i-e510d0640530b04d13d4064d301ab466-Slide11a.jpgThe trail to Thorsmork passes between the two volcano-glaciers and takes two days to complete.

As we followed the Skogar river we saw at least 5 separate waterfalls. We could also see the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in the distance.

After 3 hours we returned to camp and hit the sack under the blue midnight sky.

Day 5 - We woke up, ate, had our sulfuric shower, packed and drove to the southernmost point of the Island, Dyrholaey, to see the puffins. These are absolutely the clumsiest birds I've ever encountered. I like what our guide book had to say:

Their strategy for landing consists of sticking out their legs and hope for the best.

And they were not trying to land just anywhere, their nests were situated on small ledges jutting out of the cliff in the photo below. In addition the poor birds had to dodge terns and gulls that would swoop down and try to steal the puffins' freshly caught herring. Another striking feature of these birds (as with almost every other Icelandic bird) was their lack of fear. We could observe the puffins from about twenty feet away without them caring too much.


Iceland is a birder's paradise. Here's a compilation of photos we were able to take of the local avian species:


Besides the puffins, there were spoi (the bird with the long curved beak) and vicious arctic turns (there's one on the lower left and another in the center). Those little buggers would constantly dive bomb us during our many hikes.

After our bonding with the puffins, we traveled to Vik, a small coastal town that serves as the area's "service center". After nice hot lunch at the local greasy spoon, we took a stroll on the volcanic beach.


We then headed back west and ended the day visiting a few lighthouses and bird filled cliffs off of the southwest coast. On the last day, with a morning left to kill, we walked around Reykjavik. Very small but full of trendy artsy shops.

I'll end my description of Iceland here. This will probably be our last big vacation for quite awhile.

Now, back to work!

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What a treat to read the beautiful article! You could sent to a journal for travelers to let more people to enjoy.

Welcome back to the dreary world of broken pipettes and contaminated tissue culture rooms.

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 22 Jul 2008 #permalink

Thank you for the tour. I've always wanted to go there. Once in summer, and once in winter. I imagine the Blue Lagoon would be wonderful under the Northern Lights. How's the beer? rb

Good stuff. You should add a map.

It's funny you say that - i tried adding a Google map (here's an example) but Google notified me that it was forbidden on this site. I may work one up and post a link to it.

beautiful description of your trip to Iceland.Makes me want to visit.

Oh - you just missed the eclipse!

Thingvellir was also where they'd drown adulterous women. Bad enough anywhere, but it's even worse in Iceland, because I can't imagine there was a whole lot of other things to do in Iceland in the Middle Ages.